Book Update – September/October 2021

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

We live at a time when much of the world we assumed was permanent is being shown as transitory at best. Unsustainable systems of living are falling apart before our eyes reminding us how dead-eyed consumption charging into the future will lead to our deaths. Science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler saw humanity headed in this direction back in the 1990s when Parable of the Sower was published. The book is set in the distant future of 2024 and is told from the perspective of Lauren Olamina, a young Black woman living outside of Los Angeles. Her deceased mother’s use of drugs during pregnancy imbued Lauren with hyper-empathy, meaning she experiences the sensations and feelings of others. In a crumbling world full of violence and rage, this is a very horrible thing to have. 

The story begins with Lauren, still a teenager, living with her father, stepmother, and brothers in their gated community. The people have barricaded the walls and gate and, under the guidance of Lauren’s father, created a tenuous but self-sustaining system. The story begins with very episodic moments, signs that things aren’t great, and as the narrative continues getting worse. Butler focuses her themes on the balance of individual & collective survival. Lauren begins preparing in secret for the day the walls don’t hold the hungry & wanting out anymore. She learns everything she can from her father’s library about survival in the wilderness and then goes about creating a go-bag with everything she would need to set out. At the same time, there’s a strong emphasis on teaching these skills to others. Lauren knows she could be perfectly prepared, but it will be much harder for her to survive independently. While most people in this future are becoming more savage, Lauren understands life without human connection is simply not worth it.

In the background of all of this are the excerpts from Earthseed that begin every chapter. Lauren is forming her own humanist religion that posits humanity’s time on Earth was just a gestation period. She truly believes the future of the species lies beyond in the stars. This is a hard sell to the people she meets who are so focused on their day-to-day survival. Lauren never pushes her beliefs aggressively but provides guidance for her makeshift family on how best to ensure they are fed and safe each day. Butler does an excellent job of worldbuilding without clunky exposition. Things happen in the world so naturally that you can’t help but feel you’re reading a prophecy about where our own planet is headed. A populist demagogue is elected president fomenting prejudices. A massive corporation constructs a company town welcoming the broken masses who will be watched over by armed guards at all times. Outside the privileged walls, humans have given into cannibalism and savagery because what else can they do? Parable of the Sower is beautiful in that Lauren never judges other people for their mistakes and is honest in her own journey to becoming an adult. There is a sequel, and as someone who doesn’t go in for book series, I am genuinely intrigued to read it.

The Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories edited by Joost Zwagerman

Having moved to the Netherlands in the last month, I wanted to explore some of the country’s literature. I have to say beyond painters & Paul Verhoeven, I wasn’t familiar with much Dutch art. Thankfully, I came across this anthology that collects a ton of Dutch short stories. As with all anthologies, your mileage will vary on what you liked or disliked. After reading through the collection, I can see a deep vein of surrealism running through Dutch literature for decades. Many of the stories are fable-like and clearly not influenced by the sort of realist modernism we associate with Hemingway and the like. 

“The Opera Glasses” by Louis Coperus looks at free will as a Dutchman in Dresden finds himself tempted to commit an act that would harm another. He struggles and avoids it only for years later to do it with little thought. 

“Young Titans” by Nescio reminded me of F. Scott Fitzgerald a bit but with a strong sense of cynicism. The narrator talks about his boyhood friends, and we follow them over the years as they drift apart. 

“Funeral Rites” by Belcampo reminded me of the recent Netflix film “The Platform.” A prisoner of war wakes up in a dark, dingy cell and is forced to be the brunt of his captors’ mockery, along with the other soldiers imprisoned there. 

“Glass” by W.F. Hermans is a bizarre, fast-paced, post-WWII spy thriller where the unreliable narrator, a doctor, believes his sanatorium is housing the real Adolf Hitler, still alive but badly wounded. There are Nazis loyalists that get involved as well as those out to kill Hitler. It’s a pretty crazy and enjoyable entry in the collection. 

“Sunrise Day” by Margriet deMoor is a heartbreaking look at a married couple dealing with dementia. The wife is caring for her ailing husband, who has become utterly incapable of taking care of himself, which obviously has worn her down after so long. I love that the story isn’t afraid to dig into a person’s emotions in her place, whereas much as she loves her husband, she is ready for him to die. 

And then there is “Poop” by Manon Uphoff, a very obvious and pointed social critique. A sadistic rich woman offers to give her home to a beggar if he eats her dog’s excrement. When he jumps to the task without hesitation, she finds herself in a difficult situation. After reading this, I can’t say I’m a huge fan of Dutch literature; I disliked more stories than I liked from the collection. However, I definitely feel I have a better sense of these Dutch authors’ sensibilities and the various movements in the culture. I can sort of see why there is not a booming Dutch film industry as the writing here lends itself more to the page than something that could be visually realized in a standard narrative.

Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live by Tom Shales & James Andrew Miller

After subjecting myself to around 46 hours of hell for my series, trying to determine when Saturday Night Live was funny, I thought I should add a few more hours on reading this oral history of the show. I’d actually read the original version of this book in the early-2000s when it was first published. In 2015, it was revised with additional content covering the years that followed. I don’t think you’re going to get a better look at what was happening inside the machine until at least Lorne Michaels dies. Lorne is a significant subject of the book, and we get almost every player in the show commenting on him. This means we hear both the heaping of praise and the raking of Lorne over the coals. The most interesting parts of the book cover from the beginning of the show to the Sandler period. Once we move into the Ferrell years, the cast seems to have calmed down and become much more friendly public relations-wise. 

Particularly fascinating to me was that strange late-Sandler era where the cast was bloated, and there were clearly opposing viewpoints in the cast. You had the frat house mentality of Sandler, Farley, Spade, and the like, opposite newcomers Janeane Garofalo or Chris Elliott. This was also the period where you had veteran Michael McKean put onto the cast as almost a replacement for Phil Hartman. Garafalo is scathing in her dismissal of the more prominent cast members at the time and is rightfully unappreciative of Lorne’s management style. Multiple people in the book tell of waiting for hours outside of Lorne’s office as a type of test. They also complain about him positioning himself as a father figure and how only outbursts from cast members would get “daddy’s” attention.

If you want to read about the wild antics of the original cast, all that is here. I find it funny that Jane Curtin was married and already very professional when the show started, so she wasn’t staying late and getting involved in the drugs and nonsense the others were. Chevy Chase is an asshole if you didn’t already know. It’s always fun to read about the Ebersol years where the shows wildly failed. You get to read about all the pivots they contemplated to freshen it up. My suspicions from watching the episodes were also confirmed, as, during the Billy Crystal season, you essentially had cast & writers working separately doing their own things without much cross-pollination. The new material isn’t quite as juicy, the cast members from the late 1990s onward seem like bland palatable people without much controversy, so the book definitely drags in those parts.

Why the Dutch Are Different: A Journey Into the Hidden Heart of the Netherlands by Ben Coates

This was another one I read to further the depth of my understanding of the Dutch. I found I basically knew nothing about its history for a country that has undoubtedly influenced and shaped the United States. Ben Coates is a former British political advisor who found himself living in the Netherlands years ago. He goes through each chapter focusing on a particular aspect or historical period in the Netherlands, all filtered through his own wanderings through the country. The first chapter is a good overview of the geography, laying out the regions and how flat the whole place is. From there, he delves into the history, going through the resistance against the Spanish and into the Golden Age when exploration and colonialism fueled the nation’s engine. Then he jumps to the Nazi occupation and rounds things off with a deeper exploration of the country’s liberalism, particularly on sex work & drugs. 

I certainly learned a lot from this book, and it is an excellent cursory introduction to the Netherlands. I knew pretty much nothing about William of Orange, the first Dutch patriarch, beyond his name, and this book helped me understand why he is such an important figure in their history. It was also fascinating to read how deeply religion influenced Dutch culture despite it being a predominantly atheist nation now. The Spanish basically brought their inquisition here and were stopped because of the geography and the people’s mastery over it. The divide between Protestant and Catholic for centuries, similar to Ireland’s situation but without the violence. In the Netherlands, the divide was just accepted, and so neighbors could live parallel, separate existence just because of the religion they were born into.

The book has certainly piqued my curiosity about exploring more of the Netherlands. It’s clear that here and the United States were on similar cultural tracks at one point, but somewhere along the line, things diverged dramatically. There are still some ugly sides to Dutch society, though. The book brings up the hesitancy to address the Dutch role in the slave trade and the anger evoked when critiques of Christmas icon Zwart Piet are raised. It’s certainly not a place where people are running wild, and everything is permitted. My own experience has been that weed is readily available, but it’s not a big deal to the people who live here. There’s an “erotic massage” parlor blocks from where we are staying, but it’s a non-descript building, and no one really cares. If anything, the Netherlands is proof that all those things Puritanical Americans fret over can be legalized, and society still carries on without worry.


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